White Sox

Alec Hansen's 2018 debut was ... not great

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AP

Alec Hansen's 2018 debut was ... not great

The first start of the season for the White Sox No. 4 prospect left plenty to be desired.

Alec Hansen was on the shelf for quite a while battling a forearm injury, and he finally made his 2018 debut Saturday at Double-A Birmingham. It did not go well, with Hansen tagged for six runs on nine hits and a walk in 4.2 innings of work. He struck out four batters and gave up a home run. He threw 78 pitches, 48 of which went for strikes.

This less-than-ideal outing from Hansen comes as the organization's top-ranked pitching prospect, Michael Kopech, continues to struggle at Triple-A Charlotte. Kopech surrendered five runs and walked eight opposing hitters in three innings in his most recent start, and he's got a 5.20 ERA on the season.

Hansen and Kopech were two of the top strikeout pitchers in minor league baseball a season ago, with Hansen punching out 191 hitters and Kopech fanning 172. As of right now, Hansen and Kopech are ranked the Nos. 46 and 8 prospects in the game.

None of this does much to dampen the excitement over these guys and all the other highly touted prospects in the White Sox loaded farm system. Both figure to be key pieces of the team's starting rotation on the next contending group of South Siders.

But these kinds of performances do well to remind that these prospects won't breeze through the minor leagues and reach the big leagues as superstars. Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito are reminding folks of that at the major league level. This is a developmental season at all levels of the organization, and development isn't always pretty.

How Lucas Giolito will continue to learn during his first full season in the majors: 'You've got to be in the fire'

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USA TODAY

How Lucas Giolito will continue to learn during his first full season in the majors: 'You've got to be in the fire'

Lucas Giolito still leads the American League in walks. But issuing just two free passes in his most recent outing didn’t scream “control problems” like some of his past starts have.

Instead of being an outing-wide issue, the two walks came at inopportune moments and ended up defining the day for Giolito, who once more saw his ERA grow, moving to 7.19 after he gave up five runs in his 5.1 innings in a loss to the visiting Detroit Tigers.

He walked Leonys Martin with two outs in the third inning, keeping things alive for a base hit and a three-run Nick Castellanos homer. Two innings later, he walked Jeimer Candelario with two outs, and Castellanos followed with his second multi-run homer of the game. Five runs on two home runs, that’s what happened. Typically two mistakes don’t tell the whole story of how a pitcher threw, but it was those two-out walks that made those homers possible.

And so we see another aspect of the developmental experience for Giolito in his first full season in the major leagues.

“You continue to try to eat up as many innings and finish out every inning that you pitch,” Renteria said. “Two-out walks are tough. You can’t combat that. You can defend balls that are struck, but walks are difficult to combat. He did everything he could to try to minimize the damage along the way.”

“That’s kind of been biting me the past few starts for sure, getting two quick outs and then walking a guy, kind of letting the inning linger on,” Giolito said. “That’s when a good team can kind of take advantage. It’s really important after you get two quick outs to maintain that same intensity to the next batter and make sure you can get back in the dugout as soon as possible.”

Giolito’s struggles have been one of the biggest stories for this young White Sox team in 2018. He brought high expectations into the season after starring at the end of the 2017 campaign and during spring training. But things have often gone wrong, exemplified by the 45 walks (again, most in the AL) and the 7.19 ERA, the highest among qualified starting pitchers in the majors.

It doesn’t seem, though, that the White Sox have any plans to stop sending him out there every fifth day. These growing pains, while perhaps not expected to be quite this painful, were always going to be a part of things in this rebuilding season. We’re seeing it with Yoan Moncada and other position players struggling at the plate. And we’ve seen it with Giolito.

Still, Renteria said that this experience is what will teach the lessons that Giolito needs to learn in order to be the big league starting pitcher the White Sox envision him to one day be.

“Getting out there and pitching. There’s no other way of doing it,” Renteria said when asked how a young pitcher learns to finish off innings. “You’ve got to be in the fire, you’ve got to experience that.”

Is Reynaldo Lopez a future ace? Already with 10 quality starts to his name, consistency is a good first step

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USA TODAY

Is Reynaldo Lopez a future ace? Already with 10 quality starts to his name, consistency is a good first step

Is Reynaldo Lopez a future ace? His manager thinks so.

Lopez might not be the biggest name in the White Sox rebuilding effort, with much of the pitching hype going to Michael Kopech and Alec Hansen, even to Dane Dunning and Dylan Cease. But what Lopez is doing at the major league level shows he’s got as much of a chance at starring in that crowded rotation of the future as anyone.

Friday night’s six innings and three runs in the White Sox series-opening loss to the visiting Detroit Tigers was far from Lopez’s best moment in a season that’s gone very well for him to this point. He gave up nine hits, one off his season high, and only struck out three opposing hitters. But he kept the White Sox around long enough for Omar Narvaez to tie the game with a three-run homer after he threw his final pitch of the evening in the sixth.

A shut-down performance it was not. But it was quality, certainly by the statistic and perhaps by many other measures. It was his sixth quality start in his last eight outings, and it’s that consistency that’s made him the team’s best starting pitcher this season.

It’s part of what makes Rick Renteria see a future ace.

“Right now, he’s scratching at the surface of what he can be,” Renteria said before Friday’s game. “He’s got the makeup. I think his mound presence when he goes out there — at the beginning of the season, we would have moments where he would hit or miss in terms of what we thought his intensity level was like before the start of a game — but he’s been much more focused and committed to what he’s going to be able to do in terms of attacking the opponent.

“It has shown in his last few outings, and the way he’s approached his pitching, he’s gotten us deep into ballgames, minimized damage on the other side. He continues to mature. I think his confidence level is really growing. I think you put that together with the ability to repeat a delivery, use all your pitches whenever you want to use them, if you command the zone as he has been. He’s got a chance because not only does he have stuff, he has the ability to command that stuff.”

Renteria, in describing a variety of White Sox starters this season, has talked about the ability of a pitcher to keep the damage low, to hang around and eat up innings, as signs of growth and signs of quality contributions. It sounds simple enough: Prevent the other team from scoring a bunch of runs and make it so the bullpen doesn’t have to throw a bunch of innings. Sounds like the bare-minimum requirements of a starting pitcher rather than the definition of a front-of-the-rotation guy.

But you can’t have one without the other. It’s been upsettingly obvious to White Sox fans how certain young pitchers haven’t been able to accomplish those tasks this season. It shows that Lopez is perhaps ahead of the game in his development while his contemporaries continue to go through more visible growing pains.

Reliability has been the name of the game for Lopez, who after Friday’s start owns a 3.35 ERA and 10 quality starts on the season. Only 16 pitchers in baseball have recorded double-digit quality starts this season.

“That’s part of it. Like today, grinding through when the game first started, the first couple of innings. You are going, ‘Man, he got a little deeper into his pitch count.’ You are wondering if he was able to get through it.

“He was able to just kind of magically get to the sixth inning with 97 or 98 pitches. So, he gave us a chance. He truly gave us a chance.”

Lopez is happy to have the confidence and the praise of his manager. Giving your team a chance to win, that’s the goal for pitchers, and that’s what Lopez has been doing on a start-by-start basis. He also happens to think things have gone well.

“Those words make me feel proud, especially coming from Ricky,” he said through a translator. “I work hard every day to try to improve, to try to do my best every time that I have the opportunity to go out there to pitch and perform. It’s good when you hear those comments about yourself. That’s a motivation because you see that people are noticing what you’re doing and all the work that you put in day in and day out in this sport. And especially for me this season, it’s been a very good season.”